Spring Refresher – Rules of the road

Every spring thousands of sailor pull the covers off their boats, rig the lines and hoist their sails for the first time.  Even the most seasoned sailors should consider taking a few minutes to review their fundamentals, safety gear and standard

Rules of the road

procedures to ensure the season starts off right.  Over the next few weeks we will be looking at a series of topics designed to get you refreshed and ready to sail.

If you sail in a busy area, like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or the mouth of the Severn River in Annapolis, knowing the rules of the road will arm you with the knowledge to safely navigate what can be a daunting maze of zipping powerboats, tacking sailboats and working boats like tugs and taxis.

I recently had a conversation with veteran J World Annapolis Coach and Chesapeake Boating Club Baltimore staffer Koralina Pior, and asked her to tell me a little about how she teaches (and remembers herself) the rules of the road.  Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

KB: The rules of the road can seem daunting to even seasoned sailors.  What are the basics that people need to know before they hit the water?

KP: “Before we get started lets briefly define some helpful terms-

  • Stand-on vessel: The stand on vessel is the boat that has right-of-way. The Stand-on vessel is required to maintain course and speed.
  • Give-way vessel: The give-way vessel is the boat that must keep clear of the stand-on vessel. The Give-way vessel is required to make a clear and obvious change in course to alert the stand-on vessel of their intentions.”
KB: The definitions are helpful, but is there any sort of pecking order to who has right of way when two boats come together head to head, in crossing or overtaking situations?

KP: “In fact there is!  Remembering the pecking order is important, because it will quickly answer the first question about who is the stand-on and who is the give-way vessel.  Simply put (and worth memorizing), the hierarchy of right-of-way is:

  • Overtaken vessel
  • Vessels not under command
  • Vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver
  • Vessels constrained by draft
  • Fishing vessels engaged in fishing, with gear deployed
  • Sailing vessels
  • Power driven vessels

Each of these terms is defined in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.  For instance a “fishing vessel”, is defined any vessel fishing with nets, lines, trawls, or other fishing apparatus which restrict maneuverability, but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines or other fishing apparatus which do not restrict manageability.  So the guy in the runabout with the planer boards is a power driven vessel and not a vessel engaged in fishing.”

KB: OK, so the “pecking order” makes sense, and clarifies that sailboats have “right of way over powerboats” how can you easily remember who is the “stand on vessel” and who is the “give-way vessel?” when two boats meet?

KP: “Right – sail over power is the most common right of way scenario.  Of course if you are a sailboat but you are using the motor – you are actually a powerboat.  AND if you are a sailboat that is overtaking a powerboat, you have to give-way to the powerboat.  Between sailboats, there is an additional pecking order.  One of the best ways to remember your Right-of-way rules between sailboats is to remember this simple acronym


S = Starboard over Port: A boat on a starboard tack is the stand-on vessel. Thus a boat on a port tack must give-way to the starboard tack boat.

L = Leeward over Windward: If two boats are sailing on the same tack the boat that is more leeward is the stand-on vessel. Thus the boat that is more windward must give-way to the leeward most vessel.

O = Overtaken over Overtaking: This rule applies to boat sail boats and power boats. If a boat is approaching another boat from clear astern and is moving faster than the boat ahead, that boat is the give-way vessel. The boat which is being overtaken is the stand-on vessel. Please note even if a power boat is the boat clear ahead, it is the responsibility of the sailboat to give-way.

When I teach rules of the road, I also like to add a “W” to the acronym.  In my teaching system “W” stands for “Working.”  In many cases a sailboat would technically have right of way over a powerboat (for instance when a sailboat and a water taxi are in a crossing situation) but sometimes it pays to defer the right of way.  Some consider this an act of deference and some consider this operating under the “rule of gross tonnage.”

W = Working over leisure: A commercial boat that is working (e.g.: crabbing boat, military, tanker) is considered the stand-on vessel. The boat which is sailing for leisure is the give-way vessel. Please note this rule also applies to both sailboats and power boats.”

KB: Koralina, this is great information.  Are there other resources people might use to learn more about the rules of the road?

KP: “Right-of-way rules are important to every sailor to insure everyone’s safety on the water. To learn more about right-of-way rules you can visit the Boat US website at: http://www.boatus.com/foundation/guide/navigation_1.html and of course we cover right of way rules along with dozens of other topics in our sailing fundamentals and basic keelboat courses.”



Is the Annapolis Queen a “working boat” that can run a sailboat down in the annaoplis harbor?


Good question Mike, if you’re familiar with sailing in Annapolis you’ve probably encounter the fast moving, non yielding Harbor Queen tourist cruise.
By all rights the Harbor Queen should yield to a sail boat. However, personally, I consider her “working” and stay out of her path when I see her steaming forward. I was caught in a sketchy situation when I first started sailing here and have learned if I want to be safe and follow the number one rule “Avoid Collisions” steer clear of the Queen.


Glad to see this important topic is getting some comments. As a company we are excited to share the harbor with other maritime operators and feel that it is important as boaters that we all share the water. Talking about the rules of the road should make boating safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

In addition to Koralina’s deferential treatment of boats that are “working” remember that anytime a sailboat is overtaking a powerboat they must also give way. We experience this often when sailing back to our location on Back Creek. Slower moving powerboats that we are overtaking have the right of way over us as we tack and gybe back into the creek.

With boats like the Harbor Queen, a quick check in with the captain of the other boat can often clarify who will do what and avoid issues. Most “working” vessels should be monitoring channel 13 and channel 16.

A little communication and a willingness to share the water will go a long way to making all our on the water experiences better.

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